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The Countian Rakes Political Muck


For most of the nation, politics today has become a slick package of computer predictions, gallup polls and flashy ad campaigns. But none of these innovations have yet invaded Martin County, Kentucky, and politics there proceed with a familiarly and lack of restraint that has changed little in remembered years.

Martin County has been solidly Republican ever since Confederate troops swept through the area during the Civil War. With no party lines to mold their choices, Martin Contains have developed political standards of their own. Nativity is a prime consideration no immigrant from outside the region would have a change for county office, and campaign ads in the local paper read like genealogies. One candidate for judge-executive listed not only his parents and grandparents, but all those in his high school graduating class.

Most campaign promises have a limited scope. A recent candidate for jailor promised his neighbors to buy a new coffee pot and make sure the jail's toilet tissue dispenser was always full. Other aspirants rely on more tested means, like the hopeful who left bottles of bourbon on doorsteps throughout town. And occasionally the elections can get nasty. Last year, the independent candidate for sheriff shot his opponent and continued to campaign from the jail.

For the past 20 or 30 years the county has been controlled by a political machine--first by that of a former school superintendent (in the days when the Board of Education was the county's largest employer) and later by an extended family of Kirks and Smiths.

The power of the later clan--known to some County residents as the "Housing Agency family"--was shaken somewhat in 1967 when its patriarch, then Judge-Executive Willie Kirk, was convicted of embezzling federal funds and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But five months after his conviction Kirk was pardoned by President Nixon and a few years later regained his former post. In the meantime, his wife held the position.

Although a recent election and substantially reshaped county government, in 1978 Kirk and his children, cousins and in-laws held the posts of judge-executive, county planner, treasurer, school board member, executive director of the housing agency (which distributes federal housing funds) and several other smaller posts throughout the county.

The county judge-executive wields substantial power, controlling most state and federal and tax money that enters the county. Many county residents charge that past incumbents have completely sold-out to the coal companies. One community activist recalls a former judge-executive's interactions with a large mining company: "They took him deep sea fishing, then wined him and dined him for a couple of weeks. They took him flying and he never did come back down."

Whether or not such charges are true, there is no question that many past county officials have not adhered to conventional rules of procedure. A former county sheriff was caught wildcat strip mining, while other officials have solicited illegal campaign contributions, used county property for private purposes or, as the local paper reported, "duked it out" with the jail matron. All this has led to widespread political apathy. As Gladys Maynard, chairman of a relatively new citizen's action group, observes. "A lot of people here have been deprived and deceived so much by county officials and corporations, it's hard for them to trust anyone."

In the last few years, however, county residents have gained a new champion, which was probably largely responsible for the sweeping turnover in the recent election. The Martin Countian, "A Paper With Integrity," began appearing seven years ago and has since earned great local respect for its frequent exposures of public officials. The paper has delved into land, taxes and other issues of concern in the county, as well as publicizing many scandals, which residents are afraid to mention themselves. "It wasn't hard for me to catch [these local officials]," Horner Marcum, editor of the Countian says. "People just wanted their names kept out of it. If someone was willing to go after [the officials], they'd call."

But playing this role has not always proved easy. Marcum started to rival the Martin Mercury, which was owned and operated by John Kirk, a local attorney. The Mercury eventually folded, to be replaced a week later by the Martin County Times which was published out of the same offices. ("It didn't miss a beat. It was an attempt to try new faces and new places and win back the credibility that the Mercury had lost," Marcum says.)

The Times also lasted only one year, but Kirk has proved a determined opponent. So far the Countian has been sued nine times--four times by John Kirk, five times by his clients, relatives or friends. Although the Countian has yet to lose a case, the situation has been trying for Marcum and his few reporters. Countian reporters have been stonewalled and physically attacked by county officials, and once, when word got out that the next issue would captain names of all voters who had entered the voting booth in pairs, the Times ran a banner headline proclaiming "Homer Marcum Buys 16 Votes at Pigeon Roost."

Marcum sees himself as battling for freedom of speech--"a freedom that in Martin County we don't have." Although he says the results have been worth the legal troubles, he adds, "I would never do it again I could never stand the pain twice. I keep thinking it'll get easier--but it seems to just get harder and harder.

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